NC 'Ag-Gag' Law Loses in Court

Appeals Court Rules North Carolina 'Ag-Gag' Law Violates Constitution

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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A federal court on Thursday ruled parts of North Carolina's so-called "ag-gag" law were unconstitutional. (DTN file photo)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- North Carolina's "ag-gag" law was dealt a blow on Thursday, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, ruled undercover investigations and whistleblowing are considered newsgathering activities protected by the First Amendment.

Attorneys for the state had argued in court such activities fall outside the realm of constitutionally protected speech, in a case where the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation was an intervenor for the state.

Many ag-gag laws across the country were passed to prevent animal-rights groups from conducting undercover investigations at feedlots and other agriculture operations. In Iowa, for example, the state has passed several iterations of an ag-gag law that have been struck down in court on several occasions.

A coalition of groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Center for Food Safety, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and others, filed a lawsuit challenging North Carolina's law.

"The need to confront the act's potentially legitimate applications indeed makes our task difficult, especially on the sparse, pre-enforcement record before us," the court said in its ruling, "which renders all applications theoretical.

"But the First Amendment 'gives the benefit of any doubt to protecting rather than stifling speech. So, cautiously, we forge ahead to ensure those protections endure for 'more than just the individual on a soapbox and the lonely pamphleteer. But we decide no more than we must. We enjoin the act insofar as it applies to bar protected newsgathering activities PETA wishes to conduct."

Although the law is similar to ag-gag laws around the country, North Carolina's law extends beyond animal agriculture facilities and penalizes undercover investigations in settings like daycare centers and nursing homes.

Under North Carolina's law, organizations and journalists are susceptible to lawsuits and substantial damages if they publicize evidence gathered from investigative activities such as speaking with employees, recording documents in nonpublic areas, documenting animal abuse, and performing surveillance at workplaces.

"North Carolina first offers that undercover investigations in nonpublic areas, as a class, constitute unprotected speech," the court said. "That is a dangerous proposition that would wipe the constitution's most treasured protections from large tranches of our daily lives. Fortunately, it has no basis in law."

In March 2022, a federal judge in Iowa struck down that state's 2019 law. The law was found to be too broad in its attempt to make it illegal for someone to gain access to an agriculture facility by lying on a job application to gain employment. In Iowa, however, there remain in effect two ag-trespass laws from 2020 and 2021.

Attempts to pass ag-gag laws have failed in 19 states, including Washington, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, Maine, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Delaware and New Jersey.

In June 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ruled the North Carolina law was unconstitutional.

In defending the law in that case, the state of North Carolina alleged the capturing of photos or videos while trespassing is not protected by the Constitution.

The judge, Thomas D. Schroeder, originally dismissed the case in 2017. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed that opinion in 2018.

Read more on DTN:

"NC Ag-Gag Law Declared Unconstitutional,"…

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